COLUMNIST

Is now the time to visit Venice? Fewer crowds provide a different experience.

Boats sail during the water parade, part of the Venice Carnival, in Venice, Italy, Jan. 24, 2016.
Malik Peay
Special to USA TODAY
  • With fewer crowds of visitors, visitors can plunge themselves into Venetian culture.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for Italy advising Americans to "avoid travel."

I am finally going on my first ever international trip to Europe and to say I am overjoyed is an understatement. I am a young Black traveler excited to see the world, one little corner at a time. I planned a winter excursion to Italy, knowing the difficulty of travel restrictions. 

Fully equipped with a negative COVID-19 antigen test within a day of my Sunday flight and my vaccination proof (booster included). When I arrived in Italy on Monday afternoon, after a long series of delayed flights, I was cleared to exit the airport and made my way to a popular islet in Italy where locals call their cherished home Venezia.

After my cruise jaunt along Venice’s deep blue canals, I dock in front of Venice’s newest five-star hotel, Ca’ di Dio

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The Venetian bed-and-breakfast is an architectural collision of modern art, marbled furniture, and Murano glass displays that brings to life a lofty getaway enclosure that is a walks away from the famous Piazza San Marco.

The esteemed VERO and Essentia restaurants at the hotel are an exceptional way to be introduced to real Italian cuisine that involves savory seafood arrangements and hearty sophisticated creations.

Visiting the Ca’ di Dio’s cozy reading room full of mid-century colorful decor paired with a drink from the Alchemia Bar is a downtime "must" to gain some privacy during a walk-heavy tour of Venice.

When first entering the hotel’s opulent lobby, I was in a trance by a glimmering chandelier amalgamated with rustic-colored contemporary sofas underneath.  Through the wide doors, I was welcomed by suited-up and securely masked hotel staff who quickly made me feel at home. Once the coast was clear I was ushered up to my room on the second floor where I can catch an aerial view of the center quad that gets swarmed by vacationers during the summer.

Venice welcomes about 20 million tourists annually – a figure that is only set to increase.

One of Ca' di Dio's higher-ups quickly urges a young guest to put on a mask after they briskly cross through the hotel lobby’s main elevator doors. This is the reality for those looking to travel worldwide during this winter where fears of omicron and other variants rapidly mutating are circulating through the news. Even at a luxury hotel in Venice, the hospitality staff is on high alert but that doesn’t take away from the experience.

With fewer crowds of visitors to shuffle through and closer interactions with inhabitants who are privileged enough to call the canals their home, I can plunge myself into Venetian cuisine and culture. 

Ca’ di Dio's restaurants offer an introduction to Italian cuisine.

I unpacked my belongings into my hotel room overlooking the Venetian waterfront. The meticulously crafted suite has glass and wood paneling that is met with stylistic deep-toned textiles to make each glance at the interior more of an intricate experience to marvel at. After cleaning up in the serene red-marbled bathroom and taking a slight rest on the velvet couches in my quarters reminiscent of the oceanic hues that mimic those you can see through the windows. I took on the opportunity to do some independent traveling. 

I made a voyage by foot through the Arsenale neighborhoods, known as Venice’s design district. I became keenly aware of how effortless it is to cross through the busiest parts of this small city. 

Views of the Venice canals.

Being an American wallflower, in a lively foreign space where people don’t notice your existence because they are so wrapped up in their lives, was purifying. These special moments that imaginatively suspend time feel rare nowadays but even more necessary. 

I arrived at a popular wine spot where consumers were tucked into the standing bar right in the midst of a Venetian street alleyway. 

There, I spoke to an Italian native named Mattia Cazzola who grew up more in the countryside and he told me about how Italy has gone under tight restrictions where he wasn’t able to even celebrate ringing in the new year. The juxtaposition of a packed local wine bar alongside a television tracking the staggering new cases rising in Italy was an unforgiving reflection of the confusing times we are all in. 

The floating Venetian oasis is known for its hundreds of gondolas, refreshing Aperol spritz, and my personal new favorite – Sarde in saor (a sweet-and-salty fried sardine, onion, and raisin dish).

Aperol spritz

However, the mighty northern island region is still recovering from the drop in tourism at the beginning of the pandemic.

Venice is a tourist hotspot, most destination dreamers and globetrotters try to flock to this European gem at least once in their lifetime. The tourist city that has a native population of 50,000 is dwindling every day and there will be future regulations of implementing an entry fee of 5 euros for visitors to diminish the likelihood of single-day trippers.

Outside of the on-and-off tourist cycle, the floating enclave’s sea levels are increasing and causing flooding in historic Venetian homes and many residents' stairwells are becoming submerged underwater.

The history behind Venice being a major merchant city can be felt through the many locals who live off of the earnings they make from their own home good boutique-and-antique shops.

Malik Peay in Venice.

The lack of influx of tourists has certainly impacted the city's economy but the Venetian culture has certainly thrived with less of a presence of internationals arriving in the region. More small gatherings happen in the late-night between natives instead of burgeoning tourists taking up too much space in the piazzas.

Being a Black tourist and sticking out like a sore thumb wasn't too bad when I was looking to get lost in the cultural fabric of another country, especially one as welcoming and surrealistic as Venice, Italy. 

It truly feels like a hallucination to immerse yourself in another culture while not being surrounded by tourists that normally fill up every crevice of Venice. Being able to get a sliver of authentic Venetian living when the anxieties of the pandemic have forced us to not indulge in certain freedoms we had prior is well worth it.

Malik Peay is an LGBTQ journalist focused on redefining Black art and culture through building more uplifting narratives for marginalized and overlooked communities. You can follow Peay on Twitter @malikpeayy